HARRISBURG, Pa. — In the same spot where he spoke to thousands of people at a raucous state Capitol rally demanding an end to pandemic restrictions in April 2020, Doug Mastriano appeared Saturday before a crowd of just a few dozen — about half of whom were volunteers for his ragtag campaign for governor of Pennsylvania.
Mastriano, an insurgent state senator who in the spring cruised to the Republican nomination, is learning this fall that while it is one thing to win a crowded GOP primary on the back of online fame and Donald Trump’s endorsement, it is quite another to prevail in a general election in a battleground state of nearly 13 million people.
He is being heavily outspent by his Democratic rival, has had no television ads on the air since May, has chosen not to interact with the state’s news media in ways that would push his agenda, and trails by double digits in reputable public polling and most private surveys.
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There’s no sign of cavalry coming to his aid, either: The Republican Governors Association, which is helping the party’s nominees in Arizona, Michigan and six other states, has no current plans to assist Mastriano, according to people with knowledge of its deliberations.
The Pennsylvania governor’s race is perhaps the most consequential in the country. Mastriano, an Army colonel who chartered buses retired to the Jan. 6, 2021, rally that led to the attack on the Capitol, has vowed to ban abortion without exceptions and pledged to enact sweeping new voting restrictions. He would be likely to carry out those measures given the Republican advantage in the state Legislature.
But the stakes aren’t apparent based on Mastiano’s limited resources. There is little indication that he has built a campaign infrastructure beyond the Facebook videos that propelled him to stardom in right-wing circles and to the vanguard of Christian nationalist politics.
“I can’t even assess things because I don’t see a campaign,” said Matt Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs, an advocacy group that is a major player in the Pennsylvania Republican. “I’ve not seen anything that is even a semblance of a campaign.”
Brouillette, who backed one of Mastriano’s rivals in the GOP primary, added: “Now, maybe he knows something we don’t on how you can win in the fifth-largest state without doing TV or mail. But I guess we’re going to have to wait until Nov. 8 to see whether you can pull something like that off.”
Brouillette’s organization is the only one to air any television ads attacking Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general who won the Democratic primary for governor uncontested even as he spent $400,000 to help lift Mastriano to victory in the Republican primary.
But while Commonwealth Partners’ political action committee has paid for 811 television ads urging Pennsylvanians to “vote Republican” against Shapiro, the Democratic nominee’s campaign has broadcast more than 23,000 ads promoting himself and attacking Mastriano since the May primary, according to AdImpact, a media -tracking firm.
Republicans elsewhere who, with Trump’s endorsement, won primaries against the wishes of their local political establishments are facing similar disparities in TV advertising in the final weeks of the midterm campaigns. Along with Mastriano in Pennsylvania, Trump-backed candidates for governor in five other states — Arizona, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and Michigan — have combined to air zero television advertisements since winning their primaries.
Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, the RGA’s co-chair, was asked about whether he views Mastriano as a viable candidate during a Q&A session this month at Georgetown University.
“We don’t fund lost causes, and we don’t fund landslides,” Ducey said. “You have to show us something; you have to demonstrate that you can move numbers and you can raise resources.”
In polls of Pennsylvania this month, both The Morning Call of Allentown and CBS News showed Shapiro with a lead of 11 percentage points over Mastriano, an advantage that has more than doubled since the primary. The most recent campaign finance reports show that Mastriano’s campaign account had just $397,319, compared with $13.5 million for Shapiro.
Mastriano’s supporters say he’s following a Pennsylvania playbook written by Trump. They are counting on a surge of under-the-radar grassroots enthusiasm on Election Day and a political environment in which Republicans are motivated by anger with President Joe Biden.
“I wish that Sen. Mastriano had the money to be on the air,” said Charlie Gerow, a longtime Pennsylvania Republican operative who finished well behind Mastriano in the primary. He added, “But his non-traditional campaign seems to be working.”
There isn’t a lot of evidence that’s true.
Mastriano, who this year spent $5,000 trying to recruit supporters on the far-right social media platform Gab, never built an army of small donors of the sort that have powered anti-establishment candidates elsewhere — including Trump.
“Really not finding a lot of support from national-level Republican organizations, so we’re calling on people across Pennsylvania and across the United States of America to give directly to our campaign,” a glum-looking Mastriano said in a video on Facebook last week. “These large groups, we have not seen much assistance coming from them.”
The video solicitation demonstrates the limits of Mastriano’s unorthodox campaign. Since he posted it Wednesday, about 4,700 people have viewed the request — a small fraction of the weekly audience of millions for Shapiro’s deluge of television advertising, not to mention his ubiquity in the Pennsylvania news media.
According to Shapiro’s campaign, he answered questions or conducted interviews with 41 Pennsylvania newspapers, television and radio stations during the first three weeks of September. During the same time period, Mastriano — who speaks only to conservative news organizations and podcasts — spoke with just three Pennsylvania outlets, according to media trackers.
Those in the crowd Saturday applauded Mastriano for what they viewed as his taking the fight to the news media. Supporters said his social media presence would be more than enough to counter Shapiro’s enormous financial advantage.
“He has no need to spend money,” said Theresa Wickert, a retiree from Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. “It’s grassroots. He has never put out a commercial against anyone the way that Shapiro and the others are putting them out. never. He will never do that. That is not who he is.”
Mastrian declined an invitation to an Oct. 3 debate at a dinner hosted by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, the first time in decades the organization has not held a debate between the state’s major-party candidates for governor. Shapiro will instead answer questions before business leaders at a “fireside chat,” an opportunity Mastriano also rejected.
After speaking to about 60 people Saturday — days before, his running mate, Carrie Lewis DelRosso, had urged supporters to attend “the big rally” — Mastriano hustled to a waiting SUV while avoiding questions from reporters. A Pennsylvania state trooper shoved a local newspaper reporter out of the way as he tried asking Mastriano if he would accept the result of the November election.
Aides to Mastriano did not respond to messages and declined to answer questions at the rally.
Mastriano has resisted private entreaties from supporters to engage more with the news media — if only to spread his message to potential small-dollar donors.
“We have sort of a fundamental distrust as conservatives that we don’t get a fair shake,” state Rep. Mike Jones, one of the warm-up speakers for Mastriano on Saturday, said in an interview beforehand. “But when you’re at a financial disadvantage, you’ve got to get out there and take advantage of free media whenever you can.”
There’s not much coming for Mastriano from the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, which was quite help in a need of cash that, in a real-life Hail Mary, it sold its Harrisburg state headquarters in June to the Catholic church next door for $750,000.
Shapiro has sought to fill the void left by Mastriano’s aversion to the news media and his inability to afford advertising, trying to win over moderate Republicans who might be put off by Mastriano’s far-right proposals.
Shapiro has said he would appoint two parents to the state’s Board of Education and has endorsed Republican legislation to allow parents in some of the state’s public schools to use state aid for private school tuition — a move that drew praise on The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page.
Shapiro said he had little sympathy for Mastriano’s aversion to the press corps.
“The question I have when I look at his tactics regarding the media is, you know, what’s he hiding?” Shapiro said in an interview. “If he can’t answer questions from the Pennsylvania local media, how can you possibly be governor?”
Mastriano’s rally Saturday was a hodgepodge of the state’s minor right-wing figures, many who came to prominence fighting public health restrictions early in the pandemic. A half-dozen men wearing uniforms of a local militia group, the South Central Pennsylvania Patriots, patrolled the grounds while a vendor stood behind a merchandise table without moving much product.
During one speech, state representative David Zimmerman revealed for the first time that he had received a subpoena from the FBI in its investigation of efforts to overturn the 2020 election. “The FBI looked for me all day long,” he said. “But what I did that they didn’t know is, I turned my phone tracker off.”
Mastriano’s supporters said there was little reason to believe the crowd was indicative of his support.
They cited an array of explanations for the double-digit crowd — a Penn State college football game up the road in State College, the annual Irish Fall Festival on the Jersey Shore and Facebook, the original source of much of Mastriano’s popularity.
“This is good evidence of being shadow-banned on Facebook,” said the event’s organizer, a Philadelphia-area Uber and Lyft driver named Mike Daino who said he’d been kicked off the platform nine times for spreading misinformation. “They are banning conservative talk. But let’s continue on with the program.”
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